I beg to move,
That this House has considered court closures and reform.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am very pleased to have secured this debate on an extremely important topic that is long overdue for discussion.
The justice system is to undergo a radical programme of modernisation. The Minister will no doubt tell us about the potential for information and communications technology to deliver efficient and improved justice. However, against a backdrop of 40% cuts to the Department’s budget since 2010—the most of any Department—there is serious concern that this will be done without the proper safeguards to prevent our justice system from being undermined, and that it will therefore lead to reputational damage.
In January, the Government announced a consultation on the future estates strategy for the Courts and Tribunals Service, with a focus on ensuring access to justice. Separate to that are five consultations on proposals to close a further eight courts: the Banbury magistrates and county court and Maidenhead magistrates court, which will have a direct impact on my Slough constituents; the Cambridge magistrates court; the Chorley magistrates court and the Fleetwood magistrates court; Northallerton magistrates court; and Wandsworth county court and Blackfriars Crown court. Given how many courts the Government have closed in recent years—258 since 2010—there seems little doubt about what conclusion will be reached. Are the consultations not simply a smokescreen for yet more court closures and staff losses?
Capacity should not be the only criterion used to determine court closures. Geographical coverage and the representation of the justice system throughout our country are also important. As I will set out, there remain genuine concerns and a serious lack of detail to the Government’s plan to use technology in the court system, to reduce the court estate and to change the role of case officers. There could be no better response from the Minister today than an announcement that the Government are finally publishing the draft courts Bill. I hope she will give the date for that, as only then can the reforms be subjected to full scrutiny.
Thousands of court staff have been axed in recent years—more than 5,000 since 2010. That is an incredible number; however, the consultation is silent on the impact that further closures will have on staff. Indeed, they are merely called “other impacted groups”. On top of that substantial loss of expertise and experience, the closure of the eight courts would displace more than 130 staff. Does the Minister agree that court staff should be properly included in consultations?
Against this background of funding cuts, court closures and loss of staff and their expertise, outsourcing and temporary staff costs have rocketed. Figures obtained by the Opposition show the cost of the Government’s obsession with outsourcing, privatisation and the use of agency work. The Courts and Tribunals Service spent some £50 million last year on agency and contract staff—a tenfold rise since 2010.
The Government claim that these closures are part of a £1 billion modernisation of the courts service through better use of technology. Where is the evidence to justify the push for a digital courts programme? The Government should publish the business case for their modernisation programme so that the risks of a move to online and virtual justice can be fully examined.
I speak as the co-chair of the justice unions cross-party group. Does the hon. Gentleman share my fears that we have not yet had an effective evaluation of the impact of digital technology on justice and on whether court proceedings carry on? That should be done as a matter of urgency before the Government introduce yet further digital technology into the court system.
I thank the hon. Lady for her pertinent point and fully concur, as I will elaborate.
Virtual courts may significantly increase the number of unrepresented defendants, discriminate against vulnerable defendants or those who do not speak English well, and negatively affect the relationship between defence lawyers and their clients. There are already concerns about video equipment that is in use, including technology failure, poor sound quality and mismatches of sound and image.
In my constituency, I have a large volume of immigration cases. Reports of video links between the Taylor House tribunal hearing centre and Gatwick detention centre breaking down are frequent, as are complaints about the poor sound quality. I am told that users must shout to be heard. That has been unresolved for many years. Likewise, there are concerns about the difficulty of holding confidential discussions where there is inadequate soundproofing. The Bar Council stated last month that
“virtual hearings diminish the ability of parties to follow proceedings and to understand each other. This inevitably will have serious consequences on the quality of justice as it is done and as it is seen to be done.”
Given the current situation, what plans are in place to guarantee that legal advice discussions between clients and lawyers remain confidential when held over video link? In the rush to digitalisation, where is the evidence, rather than the mere assumption, that there will be a reduced need for court buildings in the near future? After all, the Courts and Tribunals Service has recently confirmed that virtual hearings will not be imposed where participants do not wish it, so it is likely that physical hearings will be the norm for some time to come. Has that been a factor in any of the consultations?
I would also like to discuss travel times to court, which will be a significant issue if the courts estate shrinks further. Longer journeys will have a negative impact on the delivery of justice. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), wrote recently to the Minister:
“No convincing policy justification has been offered for the current proposal, which appears to favour the principle of value for money over the principle of access to justice.”
I represent Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Dolgellau, the last magistrates court in my constituency, was closed in the last round. It is now impossible to arrive at either Aberystwyth or Caernarfon, the alternative courts, from Meirionnydd by 9.30 am. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given the situation in rural constituencies, this discriminatory approach needs to be evaluated thoroughly before we move to further changes?
The hon. Lady speaks with a great deal of experience. Indeed, while this will impact everybody in our country, the impact on rural communities will be disproportionately higher.
Does the Minister agree with the Chair of the Justice Committee’s remarks? Our constituents must not be discouraged from seeking justice, and witnesses must not be put off giving evidence. Is the Minister not concerned that court closures will make it less likely that victims and witnesses will travel to courts to give evidence? The equality analysis accompanying the consultations makes no mention of the indirectly discriminatory impact of lengthy round trips on elderly people or women, who are more likely to be caring for pre-school and/or school-age children.
There are relevant points of fact on travel time that consultations neglect to take into account. The consultations assume that a court user is on time if they are there at the time when the hearing is due to start, rather than in advance, when negotiations may take place or further instructions may be given. The Minister will be aware that in a public law children’s hearing, it is a requirement that all parties attend court an hour before the hearing. Will she ensure that such factors are considered when travel time is assessed?
What assessment has been made of access to justice if court users are required to pay for overnight accommodation, leave home in the early hours or return home late at night?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On the issue of accessibility, a few colleagues fought an ultimately successful campaign to retain the courthouse in Limavady, a small town in my constituency. The lack of public transport accessibility to the alternative locations that would have been available was a crucial factor in retaining it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that should apply across the UK?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. That situation has been replicated in other parts of the country, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) said in her intervention. All those issues need to be taken into account, especially when dealing with the more vulnerable in our community.
What assessment has been made of access to justice if court users are required to pay for overnight accommodation? Two or three-hour increases in travel time before and after a full day’s hearing, let alone post-hearing conferences, would be onerous—if not impossible—for many constituents.
In my region, the Thames valley, Maidenhead magistrates court and Banbury magistrates and county court are under consideration for sell-off. It is assumed that the workload would be redistributed to other magistrates and family courts in the region, including the small magistrates court in my constituency. According to the Government’s proposals for those three courts, people living in the areas affected by the court closures would be within an acceptable travelling distance of the court that the work was transferred to.
My constituents who rely on public transport will face a significantly longer journey if Maidenhead cases are redistributed to Reading. They will not find that acceptable. It should be noted that Reading has already received the workload from the closure of the West Berkshire magistrates court in Newbury in 2016. Instead of the 20-minute, seven-mile journey between Slough and Maidenhead, people will face a 20-mile journey to Reading or journey times of about one hour to High Wycombe or Staines.
Unsurprisingly, longer journeys also cost significantly more. An off-peak return journey by train between Slough and Maidenhead is £3.90. Between Slough and Reading it is £9.30. During peak times, the Maidenhead journey is £4.40 compared with £10.60 to get to Reading. Whatever the time of day, it is more than double, yet in the Government’s proposal there is no mention—not even one word—of addressing the financial cost to individuals travelling further.
The extra costs will be borne by victims, their support network, witnesses and others. How can the Government claim to have truly assessed the impact of possible closures on court and tribunal users when transport prices have not been considered? It goes without saying that such information is factual, freely available and easily found. There is no excuse for it to be overlooked.
It is not only Opposition Members who are concerned about the lack of information in the Government’s plans. The Minister will know that Cambridge magistrates court, which was purpose-built less than 10 years ago and which serves her constituents, is earmarked for closure. Has she had sight of a letter from the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) that calls the plans “ambiguous” and “lacking in detail”? Does she disagree with her hon. Friend?
Much more could be said about the use of technology in the court system, the ongoing reduction in the court estate and planned changes in the role of case officers, and about the Law Society’s warning of substantial additional costs for legal aid firms and the impact on police resources and on other organisations that use the courts. Will the Minister address the lack of clarity in the consultations and confirm that more of the necessary research into the digitalisation of court services will be carried out?
While the “Fit for the future” consultation takes place, and until the courts Bill is published, further court closures and digitalisation contracts should be halted. It is time for the reforms to be subjected to full parliamentary scrutiny. I hope the Minister will be able to give us information about the scope of the promised courts Bill and, better still, to answer the fundamental question: when will the Government publish it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am here because I am a member of the Justice Committee, which is meeting now. I have permission from the Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), to attend and speak in the debate.
The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has raised an important point about access to justice. We ought to keep that concept firmly in mind. We in the Committee—certainly myself—are concerned for access to justice to remain a preferred concept throughout the process, and for it to permeate everything we think and do.
There is a need to maintain a network of well-maintained and fit-for-purpose courts. I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said but, unfortunately, some courthouses are not fit for purpose, and it is necessary to root them out, look at them and make changes to the way they function.
There are three other reasons why the court system is undergoing change and why it needs to be rigorously looked at. The first reason relates to Lord Justice Briggs’s work to set up the online courts, which are not yet set up in full. Lord Justice Briggs has made proposals to change the civil rules that govern how the courts work, which are being piloted in a three-stage process. It is an attractive system for running the courts, particularly for people who wish to avoid huge legal costs. The way in which the courts are being sorted out by that process is focused on the needs of individuals, because litigants in person are expected to be its clients.
I listen with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he share my concern that there are discrepancies in power between a person at a distant site contacting a court through video conferencing and a person in the court itself? We need to consider the impact of that on justice outcomes before moving ahead. As the process is at such an early stage, now is the time to do that.
I will speak about aspects of the technology, but postpone answering that question for now, if I may. Having discussed online courts with Lord Justice Briggs, I am enthusiastic that they will come through in the fullness he wants.
The second reason for change is the need to improve technology. I recently did an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship in law, where I sat with a number of judges in the High Court and the Court of Appeal for two and a half weeks. I sat with Mr Justice Knowles in a hearing in the commercial courts that was conducted entirely in Portuguese, because a Portuguese lawyer had brought the case and had elected for his case to be heard in English law. The level of sophistication of the technology had to be seen to be believed. Almost instantly after the appellant said something, the judge got a transcript in English on his laptop on his desk in front of him. That was an extremely efficient way of using technology. In the Court of Appeal, I saw for myself in a number of sentence referral cases that the court had been connected via video technology to the individual who was still in prison, in order to hear the case. I am absolutely convinced that that is a correct way to try to improve the technology.
In contrast, I experienced sitting with an employment tribunal where, as far as I was concerned, it was so antique that we might as well have been using the quill pen. Three judges were sitting. I coughed and spluttered when they said they would sit for seven days, but it was seven days because a litigant was appearing in person. Nothing was done that could not have been done on the first day—the other days were scheduled in order to ensure that more time could be given to the litigant if necessary.
I want to alert people to the need to be very careful about how we use different languages in the courts, with reference to the last round of court closures. The Ministry of Justice has a Welsh language scheme, part of which is a requirement to carry out an impact assessment of changes. I and others had to press for that impact assessment to be carried out. Welsh speakers have a right to use their language in court, but with technology and changes to courts, that is truly a matter of concern.
I will stick to the point that I started making. From what I have seen of how the courts are using technology, it is going in the right direction. The courts are making full use of the technology—indeed, they are pushing the technology beyond how we would normally expect it to be used.
The third element is alternative dispute resolution—I say that as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution. Alternative dispute resolution takes cases out of the ambit of the courts and puts them in the hands of arbitrators who are able to hear the cases and resolve them, and they should do so. During the time I sat with judges in the commercial courts, it was obvious—the judge said it on many occasions—that people should have gone to arbitration before they went to court.
The last time I spoke on this issue, I was asked whether we ought to consider compulsory arbitration. I was doubtful at the time, but as I have come to consider it more, I now believe that a form of compulsory arbitration would be a good thing and should be included within the arbitration rules. This process is not just about the arbitration, or the alternative part of dispute resolution. Bodies such as Network Rail try to solve disputes before they happen by putting in place the mechanisms to solve them.
I mention that because it is an important point about how courts are not being used as much as they were. Alternative dispute resolution is cheaper, quicker and gives much more immediate access to justice—we should not forget that access to justice is one of the key elements of the process. It takes nothing away from the courts: if the alternative dispute resolution fails, there is still recourse to the courts at the end of the process.
Through all of this, there is a need to ensure that we connect with the communities that we are serving. Doing that through existing buildings without exploring the use of town halls and other buildings within a community is not the right way of proceeding.
My hon. Friend made the point right at the start of his remarks about access to justice. Is he aware of any system operating thus far whereby technology replaces the entire work of a magistrates court in a full criminal case, or is that yet to be proven?
If I do not know the answer, I think my hon. Friend is about to tell me where that is the case.
No, I am asking you.
I do not know of a case where that is happening across the whole system. The courts’ use of technology and how they are pushing it, including the exemplary work by Lord Justice Briggs to set up an online court, is going in the right direction in respect of bringing access to justice within the ambit of a huge number of people for whom—I say this with all deference to the Minister—the legal fees involved are out of this world. We should keep that in mind as being a fundamental part of ensuring access to justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate and on his excellent introduction to the overall subject.
It will perhaps come as no surprise to you, Mr Gray, that I will mainly concentrate my comments on the potential closure of the magistrates court in my constituency of Cambridge. I should say that I am grateful to the Minister for the discussions that we have had. I understand that she will not make the decision about Cambridge in particular, although I am sure that she is in a position to pass the comments made in this debate to whoever will make that decision and to respond to some of the points that are made today.
The reaction in Cambridge to the news that our very expensive court, which was newly created just a few years ago, was up for closure was one of universal astonishment and dismay across the board. We have heard from court users and magistrates. There has also been an open letter from 39 very senior academics, as one would probably expect given that there are a lot of experts in penal injustice issues in Cambridge. They made many of the points that have been made very eloquently today by my hon. Friend and they also reflect the fact that the justice system is changing. No one is denying that the world is changing; the question is whether this is the right pace of change and the right way to change it.
Some of the opposition has come from quarters that would not normally be expected to provide opposition. The police and crime commissioner for Cambridgeshire, Jason Ablewhite, is a Conservative, of course, and I do not always agree with him on everything, but he has produced a very detailed response to the proposed closure, with many sensible points. He describes himself as being “deeply concerned”, and he finds it “surprising” and “disappointing” that the Ministry of Justice is making these suggestions about Cambridge, and he needs to be convinced that the proposals have been fully thought through.
The latter is the point that I wish to develop, because I hardly need to point out to the Minister, who knows this very well, that Cambridge—and Cambridgeshire—is one of the fastest growing parts of our country, and it has huge problems in terms of its local transport infrastructure. With one of the fastest-growing economies in 2018, the combined authority assumes that the population will grow by more than 100,000 by 2031, and we have seen the Government’s enthusiasm for promoting such growth, with their ideas about east-west rail and so on. Obviously, we would all hope that such growth would produce a record number of well-behaved citizens and that there would be no further problems and no need for a justice system but, sadly, I do not think that likely. At a time when our city is growing so fast, it seems absurd to suck out of it modern facilities that were provided at huge cost only a few years ago. A particular irony is that the consultation talks about the capital value that may be unleashed but there will be no capital savings because the building is leased—the value might not even exceed the £1 achieved when Ely magistrates court was sold a few years ago.
A final point on the Cambridge position is that I am grateful to local blogger Antony Carpen for digging out the history of the city’s justice system. He tells me that Professor Helen Cam found out that Cambridge’s first courthouse was established in 1572. So here we are, 450 years on, and I hope that the Minister will not be the one responsible for undoing that long tradition of local justice in Cambridge.
In the details that underlie the proposal to claim Cambridge magistrates court, the basic case is that it is underutilised. When I visited the court a few months ago, and when I talked to people involved, that was the crux of the issue. Sadly, it has taken freedom of information requests to drag out some of the detailed figures that one would hope would shed more light on the claim of underutilisation: why is this modern court underutilised? When we look at those numbers, an even more puzzling story begins to emerge. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service management system tells us that in 2014-15 just over 7,000 cases had their first hearing at Cambridge magistrates court. The following year, the number jumped dramatically to more than 14,500 but the year after that it lurched back to 8,000. That is not about virtual courts, nor is it about changes in the number of people brought to and from court; I am afraid it is about a system that is woefully understaffed and effectively in chaos on a daily basis. I am told that listings are currently running seven or eight months away. It is not underutilisation; it is a building that does not have enough staff in it.
The comparison would be running a village shop with nothing in it—Government Members love the village shop analogy when talking about economics. If there is nothing in the shop there is nothing for people to buy, so it gets into trouble and the answer is to either close the shop or stock it properly. I would say that we have a very modern facility that should be used properly. I understand that there is an issue with the configuration; we have three court buildings in Cambridge and others around the county. The question is how best to do this.
There is also a cost issue. Possibly due to commercial confidentiality, the Ministry of Justice sadly seems unwilling to share this information, but figures are bandied around locally and I am told by some that this is the cheapest court to run in Cambridgeshire and that the private finance initiative court in Huntingdon is extremely expensive by comparison. There may well be contractual issues as to why one might be chosen over the other, but perhaps we ought to know and, particularly at a time of changing lease values in city centres, we ought to look ahead rather than responding in a short-termist way.
We have heard the argument about travel times—travel times will always be discussed in debates on these issues—and the Minister needs no reminding of how difficult it is to travel in and out of Cambridge. Many of the people who have come to me and have written to the local newspaper have explained just how difficult it would be to go to Peterborough or Huntingdon, with the journey sometimes taking much longer than an hour. One person said it took her 40 minutes to get in from Grantchester, which is roughly the time it would take to walk. To get to Peterborough and back in a day is impossible for some people. Those are the same issues as the ones my hon. Friend the Member for Slough raised.
Going back to the fine detail, we also have concerns about the suggestion that non-custodial work might remain in other court buildings in Cambridge. That is to be welcomed, but it might have been useful if the Ministry of Justice had been able to explain at the outset just what the split between custodial and non-custodial work was. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) asked about that in a letter, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, and a freedom of information request revealed dramatic numbers: 326 of the 14,000 cases in 2015-16 and 481 of the 7,500 in 2016-17 were custodial ones. That rather raises the question of whether it is possible to configure the three courts in Cambridge creatively, to most effectively help everyone.
The consultation has been run oddly, starting with a headline about closing a magistrates court when it should have been about how to make best use of the buildings we have. One of the most useful things I have done, apart from visiting the court and seeing it in action, is to have a conversation with a group of defence lawyers in Cambridge. Their account of what the system is like on a daily basic verged on harrowing. They said that it was extremely pressured, with real issues of access to legal aid in the area and pressure on local defence lawyers, and that there was the possibility, with this kind of change, that people would no longer have access to defence lawyers, because many of the smaller practices would not be able to bear the costs of travelling to and from Peterborough and Huntingdon. I have made an offer to the Minister, which I hope she will pass on to one of her colleagues, to come to Cambridge and sit down with the dozen women lawyers, as I did. They are all friendly, pleasant people and would explain what their daily lives are like and what life is like for defendants. They have very legitimate concerns about what they potentially face.
I conclude by reflecting on a couple of accounts by people who are in and out of the courts. When I visited, it was a long time since I had been in a court and it was pretty much as I remembered from elsewhere—a busy, fraught experience. It was also difficult to organise, and I sympathise with those trying to list cases, ensure that people turn up and deal with what happens when cases overrun or not everything is ready. It is of course hard to run a system to maximum efficiency, but a local journalist, Tara Cox from Cambridge News, who regularly goes to the court, writes:
“Every day there are delays, adjournments, and rescheduling of court hearings at the last minute. If you want to find out exactly how the magistrates’ court operates”
come and see. I extend that invitation to whichever Minister is making the decision: come and see exactly what people are up against.
Another journalist who spent a day at the court talking to its users was told:
“it would have taken me a silly amount of time to get to Peterborough”.
The mother of a teenage defendant said it had taken her an hour and 15 minutes from a village just outside Cambridge and one can imagine how much longer it would take her to get to Peterborough or Huntingdon —it could well be the best part of two and a half hours each way, which is impossible to do. The journalist also spoke to court staff, who told her that in their view the court closure would lead to an increase in the number of defendants and witnesses not turning up, which, they said, was already a significant problem. Surely the extra cost of failures to appear must be balanced against any potential savings—a point the police and crime commissioner makes forcefully in his submission.
I ask the Minister to consider the matter closely and think hard about the best way of configuring services in a city such as Cambridge. I have nothing against considering how to make best use of our existing estate but the overall message should be clear: keep the magistrates court in Cambridge open.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate.
I speak with a Scottish element. I will not take up too much time as that is not the remit of this Parliament, but it provides the experience of similar changes north of the border. I was my party’s justice spokesperson in the Scottish Parliament at a time when a number of courts were closed by the Scottish National party Government. The Library briefing for this debate states:
—of both political persuasions—
“have identified the courts estate as a target for efficiency savings”.
It states that that is for two main reasons:
“The first is that the utilisation rate of some courts is low…The second is the policy aim of reforming access to justice through modernisation, and by increased use of technology in particular.”
I want to focus on both those points in terms of what we have been discussing today and what we have been through in Scotland. Between November 2013 and January 2015, 10 courts were closed in Scotland for exactly the reasons mentioned in the briefing. Those closures were objected to by many people across the political spectrum—even SNP Members, although ultimately when it came to a vote, they voted with the Government. It is useful to look at Scotland as an example. Figures uncovered by the Scottish Conservatives in November last year show that in the previous year, only three of the 39 sheriff courts across Scotland met the target for dealing with 100% of cases within 26 weeks of someone getting a citation or caution. We have seen the impact that closing 10 courts across Scotland has had on the remaining courts. The problems are getting worse. In the past year, Elgin sheriff court in Moray has not once met its target to deal with 100% of cases in 26 weeks.
I also want to speak about digitalisation. I understand the concerns that the hon. Member for Slough has articulated, but there are great benefits. We are behind the curve in Scotland. Lord Carloway did a review in 2015 of evidence and procedure. He was a very good person to do the review, because in 2013 he said that there should be “clear sky thinking” about digitalisation in our courts system. We are no further on from his comments in 2013 or his report in 2015. We are still suffering as a result of the lack of use of digital in our court system in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Lord Carloway said:
“Police Scotland is currently migrating to a unified IT system, known as i6”—
that was a computer programme that Police Scotland was going to take in—
“which will resolve the inconsistencies currently experienced because of the incompatibilities of the legacy systems from the eight predecessor forces.”
He said that in his report in 2015. We are now in 2018, and Police Scotland has abandoned its plans to introduce i6. Three years on, we have not resolved the issues. In fact, the issues remain. He also spoke about a
“digital evidence vault to securely store all documents, audio, pictures and video content, preserving citizens’ privacy”.
There is now an evidence vault, but it is rarely used, because lawyers and the police are not happy with it. There are still problems with getting digital to have an impact in our courts. It would have great benefits.
When I was on the Justice Committee, we did an inquiry into the issue. We were looking at the role of the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. We were given an example of a case that had been given a date. Everyone turned up—the witnesses turned up, the accused turned up and the defence was ready. Then they said that they were not able to view the key piece of evidence, which they had had months and months to look at. It was a CCTV image. When the police had copied it on to a disc and given it to the defence solicitors, the defence solicitors could not view it on their DVD player. Witnesses had travelled a considerable distance. We had the cost of the court sitting that day only for the case to be put back again to get a new disc produced that was compatible with the defence solicitors’ DVD player and Police Scotland’s DVD player. It is 2018, and we still have such instances. They are causing delays in our court system, which is causing significant strain on our resources and considerable difficulties to witnesses and victims. They are turning up for trials, which are being put off and delayed because what we are doing is not in the modern era.
Since Lord Carloway’s report, there has been some progress on child and vulnerable victims, but not enough. I listened carefully to what Members have said, but I think that part of the barrier is the legal profession itself. It may be ironic that Members of this House are speaking about moving into a more modern age, but there seems to be resentment of change in some parts of the legal system. It has been their career, and their lifestyle has been immersed in a more traditional way of doing things, but we have got to overcome that. We are in the modern era, and there are modern technologies that we can adapt and use in our court systems. We should look to do that.
In conclusion, the Minister is obviously carefully considering the changes being proposed for England and Wales. She has to take care with those changes. I have no doubt there will be many benefits, but there will also be some dangers. I urge her not to do what the SNP Government have done in Scotland, which is to ignore all the warnings and forge ahead with the changes regardless. By doing that, the SNP has introduced changes that have resulted in our justice system suffering north of the border. More crucially than that, our victims and witnesses are being let down by justice in Scotland just now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this important debate. The Ministry of Justice finishes consulting later this month on eight closures across five regions, which would add to the 200 courts and tribunals closed since 2011. The lack of clarity from the Government on the court reform programme has been appalling. Bedford magistrates court closed in 2017 amid confusion over when services would be lost and where they were going. We were told that employment tribunal court services would remain, but then a shock announcement by the Ministry of Justice in July confirmed that Bedford tribunal court would close due to the termination of the lease on the building. That problem surely could have been foreseen.
I was assured by the former Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), that the tribunal service would move to the former home of the magistrates court in Shire Hall. Technically, tribunal cases can be listed at Shire Hall, but that is not happening in practice. As I understand it, only one case has been listed at Shire Hall since the move. That case, to be heard in June, was granted under exceptional circumstances. I hope the Minister will clarify the status of court listings in Bedford when she speaks.
Access to justice is being denied to Bedford residents. Nearly all cases are now heard at least 30 miles away. The cost of transport is prohibitive to many, and the change comes at a time when peak rail services are also set to be cut. What about the dedicated court staff and lay members who have to make difficult journeys to work? The number of court officials and lay members leaving the job is rising at a time when the workload is vastly increasing.
One of the Government’s main arguments for closing courts is the underutilisation of facilities, but that argument does not stack up. Since the Supreme Court ruled employment tribunal fees unlawful in 2017, the workload for cases in Bedfordshire has gone up by 100%. Those are new cases, not the backlog. The Government can talk up their series of reforms and modernisation to make much greater use of digital technology and increase access online, but none of that means anything if people cannot access it.
The Government have committed to moving to a system where access to justice is not defined by proximity to a court or tribunal building, but ordinary people are finding it more difficult to access justice because of legal aid cuts, court closures and increased court fees. There is little evidence of the benefits the Government are trying to sell us. Instead, we have further announcements of closures, and further consultations that seem to ask questions but not listen to the answers. The Government should cease any further court closures until their promised courts Bill is published and their reforms can undergo full parliamentary scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this very important debate. The policy certainly affects my constituency, with Northallerton magistrates court scheduled for closure. We cannot disconnect this policy from the overall policy of trying to improve our public finances. It has been a long road from the position in 2010 when our day-to-day spending, which is a key measure, was in deficit by £100 billion a year, but finally in 2017 we got that back in the black, if we exclude investment spending, for the first time since 2001, which is a remarkable achievement.
We must always be careful when talking about the spending of taxpayers’ money, so it is absolutely right that we look for efficiencies. That cannot exclude our courts and court estate. The Minister has been a model Minister in her engagement. She has gone out of her way to engage with me, and I am sure other colleagues, to ensure we understand the policy and the reasons behind it. My principal question is: has the policy been properly rural-proofed and is it fair?
My constituency of Thirsk and Malton is very rural with far more acres than people. It is not a rotten borough—just a huge constituency, with 77,230 people entitled to vote in it—although it was rotten in the 18th century when Edmund Burke represented it. There are many similar constituencies up and down the country: 20% of our population live in rural areas; such areas have 25% of all businesses; 3.4 million jobs are in rural areas; and 16.5% of our economy is in rural areas. There are demographic challenges in rural constituencies. I know we are not debating the NHS, but I can draw a parallel in some of the consequences of policies. I recently had correspondence from a constituent who lives near Scarborough and had been forced to travel to York for her operation. She had to take a bus and stay overnight even for a consultation. Policies in rural areas have a profound effect and might have a similar effect in terms of people’s access to justice.
Many other services are impacted, such as bus services. In my constituency, because of the demographics, we have many bus passes but not many buses. All that needs to be taken into account in policy. If Northallerton court closes, travel times will increase significantly. The logistics must be considered. For example, a journey from Rosedale to York would require three different buses and would probably be a four-hour round trip. Hawes to Skipton would take a similar time. That can affect access to justice in rural areas.
It is important that defendants are able to access justice fairly. I have talked to magistrates, including one who works in my constituency office, Nigel Knapton, who is a JP. A lot of defendants are vulnerable and have mental health conditions, and difficulties in accessing a different court would be more profoundly felt by them.
The journey times would effectively transfer cost and time from the Ministry of Justice budget to the police budget, because our police officers would have to travel to the courts. We have seen that in other areas with the closure of the custody suite in Northallerton, which means our police officers have to take an individual they have arrested to Harrogate, which is an hour’s journey. That might seem like a sensible efficiency, but is transferring costs from one budget to another a false economy?
There is also an effect on witnesses if they have to travel to courts that are hours away. They can be compelled to attend, but that is not usually the approach. Having to travel early to get to a morning session would be harshly felt by many witnesses, which could mean fewer prosecutions being brought. Magistrates, who are volunteers—we need more magistrates and are looking to recruit—might be less attracted by the prospect of travelling to a court in Teesside, Harrogate, Skipton or York, miles away from my constituency.
I have talked to JPs such as Michael Colyer, who came to see me in 2016. He was worried about the potential closure of Northallerton magistrates court, and we were assured at that time that there were no plans to close it. He made the point that 95% of all criminal work is heard in a magistrates court, yet only 1% of the cost of the judicial system is in our magistrates courts. He asks why, instead of saying magistrates courts are not busy enough, the threshold for cases that can be heard in a magistrates court cannot be opened up. The current limit is six months. The Minister will know more than I do but, if we increased that to 12 months, magistrates could hear many more cases, and those cases could be heard in the most efficient part of the justice system.
The Minister was clear that we need to look at the issues carefully and to see whether technology can provide a solution to some of the challenges for rural areas. I am certainly very happy to move with the times, but we need to ensure that there has been a successful evaluation of the technologies to ensure they can deliver suitable access to justice for people in rural areas. I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) talking about Justice Briggs and his online courts. I am not against that, but my concern is that the announcement of the potential closure, which is rightly subject to a consultation, is premature, coming before we have seen the outcomes of the pilots. I would welcome a pilot in my area to see whether my concerns and those of many other people who have contacted me, including my police and crime commissioner, can be eased. I am happy to move with the times, but the policy must be fair and rural-proofed. People in rural areas must have access to justice just like everyone else.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on setting out the case so very well and on giving us an opportunity to participate in the debate.
We increasingly live in an age that seeks to centralise things and to consolidate physical holdings. Why have a bank in rural villages when people can bank online and can attend the bank in the next bigger town? The next step, more recently, has been the closure of banks in our bigger towns, with the main town of my constituency, Newtownards, having lost the First Trust Bank, the Bank of Ireland and the Halifax bank, and all branches making changes to the way they do things, all in the name of streamlining.
Yes, we have to streamline—in a way this debate is about streamlining—and yes, we have to modernise, yet there is a time and a place for that. Like the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), I want to comment on that and encourage the Minister. I know she listens to what we say and makes sure our viewpoints are taken on board, which is important.
I recently had a proposal on my desk to close the courthouse in Newtownards in order to centralise in Belfast. It was a worrying move that concerned us. The proposal was, if I can use these words, Mr Gray, absolutely crazy. The idea of closing the third biggest courthouse in the Province was simply a threat to justice in the area. The issue is as simple, as big and as important as that.
The former Minister decided to close a lot of courthouses in Northern Ireland—a decision that the new Minister reversed. The former Minister would have closed the only courthouse in the city of Armagh, the citadel city. That decision was rightly reversed, so that people could still access it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will tell the story from my constituency, as the hon. Member for Moray told his constituency’s story. It is wonderful to discover that things in my constituency are very similar to those in Moray, because things happen that are universal across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Department of Justice proposal was to reduce the court estate from 20 to 12—a 40% reduction. That is a massive reduction, and that did not include the courts that had already closed, including smaller courthouses such as a neighbouring one in Bangor, the closure of which was a downwards step. I believe that the level of closures was disproportionately high compared with the closures in England and Wales referred to in the Department of Justice consultation paper; there was a 28% reduction in 2010. That level of culling of courthouses in Northern Ireland was not necessary or beneficial, and did not provide basic access to local justice.
Newtownards courthouse has a significant volume of business. I want to put something important on record that relates to the reasons for retaining that courthouse: it is the busiest court outside Belfast and Londonderry, dealing with all types of specialised court business—civil, criminal and family. It is now a specialist centre for children’s courts, youth courts, magistrates courts, civil courts and Crown courts. The work of that courthouse has increased, taking a bit of pressure off the larger ones. Many disability living allowance and other benefit appeals are now held there, because the safety and security aspect is much better. That is important not only for confidentiality but for those who attend. The courthouse is now seen as thriving and constantly busy. It also brings business to the local coffee shops. The spin-off from the courthouses to the surrounding area can never be ignored, and shops in the town must also be taken into consideration.
The idea of taking justice from Ards to Belfast without just cause, closing the courthouse after spending almost £1 million on refurbishing it—the hon. Member for Slough referred to the spend on another courthouse—made no sense. Asking people to make the journey from Portaferry to Belfast made even less sense, and would in itself have been a barrier to justice, as the courts there are already overworked. The Department’s target that people should be able to reach a courthouse within an hour by car is fine for those who have a car in which to travel, but for too many people it is a matter of catching a bus or train. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) spoke about people having to make three bus changes to get to a new court. That is illogical and unfair. Catching a bus or train rarely, if ever, takes less time than it takes someone to jump into their own car.
Another important point is that people have to be at court at a particular time. They have to get up at whatever time is necessary and get on buses or trains to ensure that they arrive in advance. The hon. Gentleman referred to a four-hour journey for some people to get to court on public transport. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I hope I said that right, Mr Gray; my Welsh accent is atrocious, but I tried very hard to grasp those two words—mentioned that as well. The issue of distance is very real to all of us in the Chamber.
I do not find the mentality of “Oh, what’s an hour’s drive?” acceptable. I do not accept it in my constituency of Strangford. I therefore support my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, if I can call him that, in his stand against the reforms in his constituency. The good news is that we managed to overturn them in ours. The legal community, the community of Newtownards, elected representatives, the local council and elected representatives from the Northern Ireland Assembly managed to combine our efforts and present an evidence base to Ministers to overturn the “economy savings” in my constituency by proving that it was a false economy. Ministers accepted that, and we now have a thriving and retained service in Newtownards as a result.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s passionate speech about what happened in Northern Ireland, and how the Assembly listened to the concerns of the local community and experts. The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party failed to do that north of the border. There was clear evidence from experts and local communities that the 10 closures over two years would be damaging. We are now seeing that in Scotland, but the Scottish Government and the SNP would not listen.
I will not get involved in the local politics, but I will say that it is important always to listen to the evidence.
I trust that the hon. Member for Slough will succeed in showing that what matters more than the red or black line in the accounts is accessible justice—enabling victims to come to court and do what needs to be done, without being stressed by additional worries about journeys, bus routes or anything else. We should enable victims to have time to speak with their solicitor, rather than their solicitor being on the commute, unavailable to meet them until the court time. There are so many ways in which a victim is better supported by a court that is close to hand rather than removed. I know that the Minister has listened intently to all the comments in the Chamber, and will listen to those of the shadow Minister. I hope that the Minister will take on board those viewpoints and the evidential base for keeping courthouses in place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing such an important debate at a crucial time. The scale and pace at which the Government are pursuing change necessitates careful consideration of the costs and benefits of the proposed changes. With £1 billion being spent and more than 250 courts having been closed already, it is crucial that they are carefully considered and scrutinised.
We are not against court closures or digitalisation in all instances, but we want to see justice done in the most effective manner possible. We believe that the local court system must meet the demands of the 21st century, catering to the needs of all our citizens. However, we have become increasingly concerned that the Government have instituted changes that will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable, and have prioritised cutting expenditure over the delivery of justice. The Government have closed courts, or proposed closing courts, without taking into account, for example, the issues surrounding the Cambridge magistrates court closure, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) set out in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) set out his own case as well.
Importantly, in 2010, the travel time standard used to determine court location was one hour, but that has now gone up to a whole day for a return trip. Clearly that will affect many courts, and the most vulnerable will bear the heaviest costs. For young mothers who are unable to find care, or the elderly who find long journeys difficult, such court closures will prohibitively reduce access and will cost more. It is therefore hard not to share the conclusions of the Justice Committee last month that underlying such changes is an approach
“which appears to favour the principle of value for money over the principle of access to justice”.
In the light of that, I ask the Minister directly whether the Government are seriously not concerned that court closures will make victims and witnesses less likely to travel to courts to give evidence.
I acknowledge the contribution of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who set out in detail what court closures could involve for all the people who use the system. It may be a case of a false economy: saving in one budget, but spending from another. Does the Minister agree that the reduction in courts is a backward step for our criminal justice system, because it would be difficult for people to access it?
Another important point is that the price at which the vast majority of such buildings has been sold seems alarmingly low. We recently found out that 80% of courts sold—that is, more than 120 courts—raised an average of not much more than the price of an average UK home. Research has shown that half the courts were sold for less than one and a half times the price of an average UK house. That is worrying, considering that most courts are in central city locations and are much bigger than most houses. Of the money raised so far, almost two thirds was generated by the sale of just nine courts in prime sites in and around London. Indeed, with courts in Ely, Rochdale and Consett being sold for a grand total of £21,000 combined, we see a clear picture of public property being sold off at knock-down prices. Perhaps that is not unsurprising from the party whose Government oversaw the underselling of Royal Mail by £1 billion.
The pace and width of sales bears the distinctive hallmarks of a Government who are selling off the family silver, which Conservative Governments have engaged in in the past. They find underutilisation and say that it is done for that reason, but that is not right. We know that courts are being utilised far more than is said. Hon. Members have already alluded to the fact that, for many of the courts that have been earmarked for sale on the basis of underutilisation, that is not actually the case, for example in Cambridgeshire or at Blackfriars Crown court, not far from here. Are the Government not concerned that selling recently updated buildings represents a clear waste of public money? Clearly, they need to reconsider whether there really is a need to close a court, in light of not just cost but the impact on everyone who uses it.
The digitalisation of courts is a historic shift. Digitalisation and virtual courts will have a lasting impact on our judicial system. Again, we have no objection to that. As the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said, technology can be used very effectively in courts. However, we are concerned about whether the Government have carried out proper consultation, looking at not just cost-effectiveness but the impact on people. At the moment, there is nothing on record from the Ministry of Justice to show what impact virtual courts and digitalisation will have on people involved in court proceedings.
A recent survey of magistrates, lawyers, probation officers and defendants highlighted serious concerns that appearing on video may make it more difficult for defendants to understand and participate in court hearings. Shockingly, prior to the introduction of the Prisons and Courts Bill in the previous Parliament, which was aborted due to the general election, no research had been carried out on the effects of virtual justice reforms on victims or defendants. In light of that failure, I ask the Minister again that she will guarantee that research into that key area will be done and published in advance of the courts Bill being brought to the House.
Further, in the push to move to virtual courts the Government seem to be assuming that town halls, police stations and other civic buildings will be able to provide space for virtual courts, and witnesses giving evidence from one court to another. No research has been done on whether any of that is plausible.
In addition, little consideration has been given to ensuring that there is proper legal advice for defendants. In the present system, if someone goes to court, a clerk and sometimes even friendly lawyers are on hand to give advice. I remember being in court and hearing somebody who was unrepresented saying something. I intervened, saying that they might need to see a lawyer or get advice. Obviously I cannot give advice in that situation, but guidance can be given. That happens so much in court, but it will not happen in a virtual court, because nobody is going to be there to see the problems arising. That aspect of the change has not been considered at all.
For most people, courts are something they only face once in their lifetime and the court system is alien, highly intimidating and difficult. Constituents have come to me with simple, straightforward issues, and they are so worried about what to do if they have to go to court, because it is an unusual situation for them. Although we have no problem with virtual courts, digitalisation or technology, there is again a question about how that is rolled out and how people who could be affected are considered.
The Government’s plans for automatic online convictions risk defendants pleading guilty without understanding the full implications of doing so. I ask for reassurance from the Minister that defendants will have sufficient legal advice to ensure that that does not happen. What mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that people online understand what is happening? Some of us may be computer-literate, but there are many people who do not have email accounts or internet in their home. What will be done about that?
In the reform proposals, the Government have spent more than £100 million on contractors, £30 million of which has gone to management consultants such as PwC. The amount of money spent—I would point out that it is equal to the amount raised from the sale of 223 courts —on projects that depend on an unpredictable future is a worrying sign of this Government’s attitude to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Going forward, I ask the Government to ensure that all those concerns are addressed and that the issue of transparency is taken into account. If people are sitting in small rooms in different offices in civic buildings giving evidence or being dealt with, how do we ensure that our justice system is transparent? At the moment, we have physical courts that we can go and see, so how to ensure transparency in the court system must be addressed. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done. I ask the Government to look at the issues we and other hon. Members have raised and to promise that there will be no further court closures or reforms until they have published the draft courts Bill, fully detailing their proposals, and this House has debated those proposals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate. He made some important points about the justice system in general. I am grateful that he secured the debate, has raised those points and has given me an opportunity to respond.
I make one point at the outset. The hon. Gentleman talked about cuts. The reform programme is certainly not about cuts. As he mentioned, the Government are putting £1 billion into our court reform programme and every time a court closes, the money from the sale of that court goes straight back into our justice system—more particularly, our court system.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I would like to address the issue of justice in broader terms. We should start by asking ourselves a question in the context of the debate. What is justice, and how should it be administered? It is not necessarily about a court, a wig and a dock—it is much broader than that. It is not constrained by a particular location or a setting. It is about the fair determination of rights. Although a court of course plays an important part in the determination of those rights, we must also think about how in the modern world we can deliver better, fairer and more effective justice, which is why the Ministry of Justice has started to invest £1 billion in our justice system over the last few years.
We are upgrading our system so that it works better for everyone—judges, legal professionals, vulnerable victims, witnesses, litigants and defendants. We are modernising the system. The hon. Member for Slough asked what the evidence is of the advantage of technology, and I will answer that. The Civil Justice Review of the 1980s said that we needed to use computers to manage listing. Lord Woolf called for the use of technology in the 1990s. In 2015, the Civil Justice Council stated that online dispute resolution had the possibility and potential to bring forward advantages to our justice system, such as lower cost but also more access to justice. When the court reform Bill went before the House before the general election, a document on transforming justice was put together by the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor of the time and the Senior President of Tribunals. They all called for our justice system to be brought up to date using technology. They recognised that it would bring our system forward and that by doing so, we would need fewer court buildings. I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) calling for more digitalisation in Scotland.
Would the Minister accept that the move towards, for example, online courts has come not from judges but from potential litigants who would like to see that as an alternative?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not only justices who are advocating online courts but people who use the system. We recently launched our online digital court process, through which people can make claims of up to £10,000. The pilot has been extremely successful.
That brings me on nicely to our other pilots. We are in the midst of upgrading our system in a variety of ways, in different courts and for different remedies that people need. It is now possible to apply for an uncontested divorce and for probate online. It is possible to make pleas for lower level offences, to respond to jury summonses and to issue and respond to civil money claims online. In the social security tribunal system, it is possible to track an appeal online and get mobile updates about the progress of a case. Those changes are making access to justice more efficient, quicker and, for many, much easier to use.
Thousands of people have already used those pilots and received straightforward digital access to justice for the first time, and the public feedback has been extremely positive. By providing services online, we are significantly improving the experience of those using the courts. We see that in the number of forms completed correctly. The rejection rate for paper divorce applications was 40% due to errors and omissions. Since the latest release of the online divorce service, the online rejection rate is now less than 1%.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) made some important points about vulnerable people. She is right that not everybody has a computer, uses the internet or is comfortable doing so. We are establishing a range of support channels, including telephone and face-to-face assistance, and we have worked closely with other Departments to ensure vulnerable people are protected. Our experience shows that the most vulnerable will still be able to access digital services. For example, in relation to our help with fees, the rejection rate stands at about 20% after the introduction of digital processes, compared with 75% for the paper version.
The hon. Lady also said that court can sometimes be intimidating. I said previously that we have social security updates for people going through the system on their mobile phone, and the feedback from that has been extremely positive. Someone said recently, “Courts, judges, decision all quite frightening. This completely calmed me down.” My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the possibility of technology improving our court service—not only in the commercial court but elsewhere. It is right that we consider the possibilities for justice.
We are not just investing in digital. Since April 2015, we have spent £108 million on capital maintenance to improve our estate, including £2 million for refurbishments in Manchester Central, £1.5 million for rewiring and replacing windows in Preston and more than £1.5 million for a roof and lift replacements in Leeds Central.
Other hon. Members raised issues about court closures. We must recognise some important facts about the court and tribunal estate, which is underused. About 41% of courts and tribunals used less than half their available hearing capacity in financial year 2016-17, and much of that space is in poor condition. The hon. Member for Slough talked about Maidenhead. The court is underused and sat for less than one third of its available hours in the past financial year. It is in a poor state of affairs and requires a new roof and windows, generating a total maintenance backlog of more than £1 million.
The Minister is making a very good point about buildings that need investment, but is she aware that Northallerton is in fantastic condition, having recently been refurbished, and that it has the best disabled access in North Yorkshire?
I was coming to Northallerton, but as my hon. Friend raises it I will deal with it now. As always, he made some very valid and rational points in his speech, including about the need to keep our finances under control. We are doing that and must continue to do so. He also made some valid points about rural areas. I represent a rural area, and I understand his concerns. I am pleased to have met him and the police and crime commissioner for his area. There is a good service in Northallerton, but it is underused. An interesting fact that has recently come to light is that only 11% of cases held in Northallerton magistrates court actually come from the Northallerton area, so the court actually serves a much wider area. That is how our civil justice system operates.
It is important that when we are looking to close courts—of course, no decisions have yet been made about any of the courts that are under consultation—we need to ensure that the technology we are talking about is operative so people still have access to justice.
Should we not thank lay magistrates and justices of the peace who support our magistrates courts across the country for very little recompense, other than the satisfaction of contributing towards society? When court reorganisations take place, should we not consult magistrates to ensure we get the best outcome for local people?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Magistrates voluntarily make a significant contribution to our justice system. I recently met the Magistrates Association, which does incredibly important work, and I will continue to engage with it. I met a number of magistrates in my constituency. This is not just about them; there are also volunteer legal professionals and victim liaison and support workers. A lot of people do pro bono work. The justice system relies on the voluntary work of a lot of people in our communities.
It is important that we ensure witnesses can get to court. Our use of video technology means that people do not necessarily have to go to court at all. Therefore their journeys are non-existent, rather than increased.
The hon. Member for Slough asked whether court staff should be invited to respond to the consultation. They have been, and we welcome any responses to it.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) acknowledged that justice is changing, and that we need to adapt to that. His points have been heard and will be passed on.
The hon. Member for Slough talked about the principles we should think about when we close a court. That is why, alongside the consultation on the eight courts, we opened the consultation “Fit for the future: transforming the court and tribunal estate”, which sets out our strategy for the wider reform of our court system and underlines principles that should be considered. People can have input into it as we go forward.
It is important that we have a sensible, proper debate about how we spend our money in the court system. We have consolidated our court and tribunal estate since 2016, and we have put the money from those surpluses into our court estate, and we will continue to do so. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to debate this important topic. The Government are investing to transform the service provided by our courts and tribunals so we continue to deliver an effective and fair justice system that serves all users whenever they need it.
Again, I am grateful for having secured this important debate, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to it. Many talked about the effect on their constituencies. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the use of technology in hearings and about alternative dispute resolutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) spoke persuasively about the impact of the court closure in Cambridge, and about how local justice, which dates back centuries and for which we in this country are famed, will no longer be available if the court is closed.
I thank the hon. Members for Moray (Douglas Ross) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their kind support. They spoke passionately about the impact that this is already having on Scotland and Northern Ireland. We need to be careful, because the closure of banks, which the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, and courts is ripping the heart out of local communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) spoke passionately about the impact in their communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East called for a halt to the sell-off until the courts Bill is published.
Nobody would argue against reform, but it must be done in a holistic and sympathetic manner. The Minister referred to Maidenhead, but it is not merely about costs and savings—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).